Joshilyn Jackson manages to be both serious and entertaining in her treatment of two timely subjects — race and class. With prose that disarms and charms and even makes us laugh, the author shines a light onto a dark past — one whose tentacles reach into the present.
The funniest writing in THE ALMOST SISTERS begins with Leia Birch Briggs, who has just delivered a speech to a cheering crowd at a comic-con in Atlanta. Approached afterward by a handsome Batman in full regalia, Leia “drags him by his utility belt” back to her hotel room and, well… several weeks later discovers she’s carrying Baby Batman.
Leia is 38, single, and she wants this baby. She is also white — and her Batman was black. She doesn’t know his name, where he lives, and nor does she want to.
It’s complicated, of course. Surrounded by family — including a domineering perfectionist for a step-sister — Leia decides to keep her pregnancy to herself for as long as she can. Then word comes that her beloved grandmother, 90-year-old Birchie, pillar of Birchville, Alabama, has caused a town ruckus, and Leia heads down to find out what’s wrong.
Birchie is a hold-over from the old, aristocratic South — she’s Southern graciousness leavened with an iron will. But now she’s planting her flower bed with Tic Tacs and seeing rabbits “humping all over town.”
Leia settles in, attempting to put order to chaos. But of course Birchie and her best friend Wattie have other ideas — and chaos will not be put at bay. Life erupts, and soon the house is chock-full of people, casseroles, and shenanigans.
Underneath all the fun, racism lies in wait — soon to raise its head in subtle and not so subtle ways. Leia comes to see the truth of her beloved Birchville, with its strict boundaries between black and white. How, she worries, will her brown-skin child ever feel at home?
Jackson also takes on class division but, sadly, with nowhere near the same sympathy and nuance as race. Noted for her empathetic eye in drawing her characters, the author misses the mark with Martina and Cody Mack, members of the working class. She paints them as racist, cartoonish villains, writing off their humanity completely .
And that troubles me. It’s vexing in a novel like The Almost Sisters because Joshilyn Jackson’s talent is so obvious here. She’s a terrific writer: she is funny and insightful and delivers a line of dialog like nobody’s business. I just wish she had given the issue of class division a more sympathetic hearing.
That said, The Almost Sisters is one of the most delightful books I’ve read in a good while — it’s packed with Jackson’s trademark blend of wit and quirky, endearing characters, all of whom find themselves in messes of their own making. (Don’t we all.) Lots for book groups to talk about, so be sure to put this one on your list.
A former college English instructor, Molly developed LitLovers after teaching an online literature course several years ago. It was so much fun—even the students loved it—that she decided to take it public. If Molly’s not working on LitLovers, she’s sleeping.